On January 10, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari over a case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Fourth Circuit) involving the applicability of Section 309 of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 9601 et seq., to state environmental tort law claims arising under North Carolina law. CERCLA Section 309 preempts certain state statutes of limitations applicable to claims brought under state law for personal injury or property damage, which are caused or contributed to by exposure to hazardous substances. It further provides that the limitations period does not commence until plaintiff’s discovery of the alleged injury.
At issue in Waldburger v. CTS Corp.1 is a North Carolina nuisance claim brought by property owners against CTS Corp. for contamination of their well water, allegedly caused by operations at the company’s former Asheville, North Carolina manufacturing facility. The state limitations period applicable to real property claims provides that claims may not be brought more than ten years after the act giving rise to the claim or over three years after discovery of the claim. The claims at issue were brought more than ten years after CTS Corp. sold its Asheville facility.
The Federal District Court dismissed the claims, holding that the ten-year state law limitations period was applicable and that CERCLA Section 309 was inapplicable because the North Carolina provision was a statute of repose rather than a statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations and statutes of repose both operate as limits on the amount of time a plaintiff has to bring a claim. A statute of limitations is a law that bars claims after a specified period based on the date when the claim accrued, such as when the injury occurred or was discovered. In contrast, a statute of repose bars any suit that is brought after a specific time since the defendant acted, even if this period ends before the plaintiff has suffered a resulting injury.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court decision and held that CERCLA Section 309 preempts commencement dates for state statutes of limitations for hazardous substance contamination that commence before the date of discovery of the contamination; that even though the North Carolina limitations period is a statute of repose, CERCLA is ambiguous as to whether preemption applies to statutes of repose; that the legislative history and remedial nature of CERCLA indicate that Congress intended CERCLA preemption to include statutes of repose; and that the nuisance claims at issue were brought within two years of the discovery of the contamination. CTS Corp. sought certiorari to overturn this ruling.
The decision to grant certiorari in this case is significant because there currently is a split among the Circuits on this issue. The Fifth Circuit2 has ruled that CERCLA Section 309 does not preempt statutes of repose, based largely on the fact that the plain language of that provision refers only to statutes of limitations. The Fourth Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit,3 which has ruled that the provision is ambiguous and, upon examination of the relevant legislative history, concluded that statutes of repose were intended to be included within the operative statutory language, and therefore are preempted by CERCLA Section 309.